On the Origin of Our Specimens: The Lankester Years
By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 20 February 2014
The collection of specimens, known since 1997 as the Grant Museum of Zoology, was started in 1827 by Robert E. Grant. Grant was the first professor of zoology at UCL when it opened, then called the University of London, and he stayed in post until his death in 1874. The collections have seen a total of 13 academics in the lineage of collections care throughout the 187 year history of the Grant Museum, from Robert E. Grant himself, through to our current Curator Mark Carnall.
Both Grant and many of his successors have expanded the collections according to their own interests, which makes for a fascinating historical account of the development of the Museums’ collections. This mini-series will look at each of The Thirteen in turn, starting with Grant himself, and giving examples where possible, of specimens that can be traced back to their time at UCL. Previous editions can be found here.
Number Three: E. Ray Lankester (1875-1891)
Lankester came from humble beginnings yet received an auspicious education. In 1832, he became the assistant to the surgeon Thomas Spurgin who he so impressed that Spurgin helped to fund Lankester through his medicine and science studies via a £300 loan. Lankester studied his degree at both Cambridge and then Oxford, transferring colleges mid-way at his parents bequest. Although his academic prowess was obvious from an early age, his career is thought to have have suffered in later years due to his knack of rubbing people up the wrong way with inadvertent rudeness. Perhaps as a result of this, when applying for the post of chair of zoology at UCL, Lankester met with some resistance from within The Committee of Management in charge of appointing the post. To aid his application, letters of support were written by other scientists in the field, including one by T. H. Huxley who Lankester had previously studied under at the University of Oxford. They were successful and Lankester finally became the second successor to Grant, taking over the role of chair of zoology from Sir Henry Allchin in 1875. D.M.S. Watson, after whom our science library at UCL is named, later wrote the following about Lankester:
‘During the tenure of the chair by Ray Lankester, University College London possessed by far the most active School of Zoology in Britain… Whilst at University College London Lankester trained a great series of zoologists who filled very many of the chairs in that subject, both at home and in the Dominions, and he thus influenced the whole course of zoology in the British Empire’
For a man who came from humble beginnings and who’s beliefs and demeanor made many enemies throughout his career, this is a glowing report from an eminent palaeontologist. Whatever kind of man he was to know personally, it is unequivocal that Lankester was a great academic and made significant progress in the fields of morphology and evolution. Lankester’s achievements included the introduction of the study of animals in correlation with their environment, which he termed binomics, now known as ecology. After Lankester left UCL, he went on to be Linacre professor of comparative anatomy at Oxford University, founded the Marine Biological Association in 1884 and became the director of the Natural History Museum in 1898, where he stayed until 1907. In 1907 he received a knighthood, which was followed in later years by other awards and medals.
Whilst at UCL, Lankester secured a £400 grant for the purchase of museum specimens and between 1875 and 1876, he reorganised the Museum to make more taxonomic sense and produced the very first catalogue of the collections. Beyond the taught practical sessions, Lankester set about labeling specimens and displays specifically to encourage students to use the collection for study. He continued throughout his career at UCL to acquire money to expand the collections, his particular interest focusing on rare species such as the thylacine, now extinct.
Although perhaps more influential as a teacher than as a researcher, Lankester was the first to show the relationship of the aquatic horseshoe crab to the Arachnida, the group that includes spiders and scorpions. The dissected wet specimen of a horseshoe crab shown here, is the very specimen that Lankester studied and published on, and is on display at the Grant Museum.
Another specimen that can be directly linked to Lankester is the mounted dugong skeleton currently on open display at the Museum. The paperwork refers to a manatee skeleton, the closest relative of the dugong, that was originally part of the collection. Lankester exchanged the manatee skeleton with a Mr Jim ?Thurson for the mounted dugong that we have today. The original paperwork for the dugong also stated that the specimen is of a male, and that it was ‘over the age of between 12 and 15 years at its time of death’. These snippets of history give a fascinating and exciting insight into the goings on within the collections over 100 years ago.
Emma-Louise Nicholls is the Curatorial Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology
[UPDATE: Whilst researching this blog series, it was discovered that there had been an extra curator for a few months, following Roy Mahoney. As such, The Twelve became The Thirteen. As the aim of this series is to serve as a permanent record of our history, this and all subsequent blogs have been updated to reflect this exciting discovery.]
9 Responses to “On the Origin of Our Specimens: The Lankester Years”
On the Origin of Our Specimens: The Minchin Years | UCL UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 10 March 2014:
[…] University of Oxford, and graduated in 1890 with a first class degree. He became the assistant to E. Ray Lankester, another previous curator at the Grant Museum, and demonstrated comparative anatomy at Oxford from […]
On the Origin of Our Specimens: The Chatterjee Years | UCL UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 25 April 2014:
[…] to the Medawar Building in the early 1970s. As previous curators had done, all the way back to Lankester in 1875, many specimens were put on display for the students. However, under Chatterjee the […]
Specimen of the Week: Week 162 | UCL UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 21 November 2014:
[…] Herbert Fowler who was an assistant to former Grant Museum curator E.Ray Lankester who you can read about in this blog post . In addition to teaching at UCL, Fowler was interim director of the Marine Biological Association […]
Specimen of the Week 244: The historic wax flatworm | UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 17 June 2016:
[…] class was the popular ‘Longer Course of Practical Zoology’ taught by E. Ray Lankester – the Museum’s curator, UCL’s chair of zoology, and all-around professor […]
Specimen of the Week 267: The sea squirt | UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 25 November 2016:
[…] commonly known by the name Urochordata, which was given to them by the Grant Museum’s own E. Ray Lankester in 1877. While it is very much in popular use (among biologists), it is technically illegal […]
Specimen of the Week 272: Jar of Horseshoe Crabs | UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 30 December 2016:
[…] There are a grand total of four horseshoe crab species, ranging in distribution throughout Asia to the East Coast of America. While the only American species is the Atlantic horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus), the remaining Asian species include the mangrove horseshoe crab (Carcinoscorpius rotundicauda) and two sharing the same genus Tachypleus (respectively T. gigas and T. tridentatus). Just like almost all the promisingly fun things in nature, horseshoe ‘crabs’ are not actually ‘crabs’, yet their name strongly implies otherwise. What they lack in crustaceousness, they make up as being part of the sub-phylum ‘Chelicerata’, along with Arachnids and Pycnogonids (sea spiders); in truth they share a startlingly close common ancestor with spiders. Even more startlingly so, this evolutionary position was ascertained in this very museum, and using our very own specimens, by the Grant Museum’s former director and famous evolutionary biologist E. Ray Lankester. […]
Jonty Donald wrote on 5 March 2018:
You are writing about my great, great, great uncle.
Studi mengkonfirmasi kepiting tapal kuda sebenarnya keluarga laba-laba, kalajengking – ikons.id wrote on 11 September 2020:
[…] erat dengan kepiting, lobster, dan krustasea lainnya, pada tahun 1881, ahli biologi evolusi E. Ray Lankester menempatkan kepiting tapal kuda secara kuat dalam kelompok yang lebih mirip dengan laba-laba dan […]
[…] Both Grant and many of his successors have expanded the collections according to their own interests, which makes for a fascinating historical account of the development of the Museums’ collections. This mini-series will look at each of The Twelve in turn, starting with Grant himself, and giving examples where possible, of specimens that can be traced back to their time at UCL. Previous editions can be found here (more…) […]